Challenges to Democracy in Indonesia

Since the reforms that brought an end to Suharto’s regime in 1998, Indonesia has largely been a beacon of democracy. Today, the country is a constitutional republic characterized by democratic elections, the devolution of power to local governments, and limits on presidential powers. Yet, challenges to inclusive and accountable politics persist at the different levels of this complex democracy. WFD has worked in Indonesia since 2016, focusing on supporting policies that ensure that human rights are embedded in the policymaking and implementation process.

In the first decade of the post-Suharto era, democratic gains were consolidated by the rise of the president, Joko Widodo, a former furniture salesman and mayor who won national fame as an anticorruption crusader in his home province of West Java. As he moved up the political ranks, he pledged to defend direct regional elections from attempts to revert to indirect polls—which are the norm in long-standing democracies such as Australia and India.

But direct elections have their own costs, including a narrow bandwidth of candidate quality that forces parties to auction nominations and to resort to vote-buying tactics in order to reach voters. Nevertheless, Indonesian voters have shown their willingness to identify and punish non-performing leaders by voting them out of office.

Indonesia has also seen a rise of new political actors, some of them aligned with the ruling party and others not. Those new actors can challenge the status quo and offer alternative visions of the country’s future. Yet, they still face considerable resistance from entrenched interests and the powerful influence of traditional Islamist political institutions.

The success of the post-Suharto period has not led to a consolidated democracy in the form of a functioning separation of powers (trias politica), a free press, and respect for personal freedoms. The latter is particularly a problem because the state can use its police and military forces to harass, intimidate or even arrest individuals who express their views on social media or in public forums.

One of the biggest challenges is how Indonesian public officials perceive society’s criticisms of their performance and conduct. Rather than seeing these as an opportunity to improve their performance, they often perceive criticisms as a threat and resort to legal action on the basis of defamation and hate speech.

With the upcoming 2024 presidential election, Indonesia’s democracy will be tested by an increasingly polarized and deeply regressive political landscape. Jokowi’s main rival, Prabowo Subianto, is a former general with a stained human rights record who aspires to a populist authoritarian model reminiscent of the Duterte or Bolsonaro era in Brazil and the Philippines. His campaign has already raised concerns about the possible use of security forces to suppress democratic opposition and to stifle political dissent. If he were to win, he would be allowed to run past his term limit and might be tempted to consolidate his power by removing the checks and balances that currently exist in Indonesia’s electoral system. Unless this is remedied, Indonesia’s democracy will remain fragile.